George Muller stood in front of a tower of shoes, each scrawled with the name of someone killed by addiction. One of those shoes belonged to his daughter Jennifer, who died of an overdose last spring at age 41. He knows recovery is a matter of life or death. He owes his own life to sobriety. He had tried to convince Jennifer to seek help, too, but she didn’t think she had a problem, he said.
It was an unexpectedly sunny fall Saturday in Portland as a crowd grew around Muller. People held signs that read “Oregon Recovers,” as nonprofits and government agencies came together to kick off a new initiative to improve access to addiction services across the state. Many people referenced a 2016 report by Mental Health America that ranked Oregon worst in the nation when examining the prevalence of need for mental health and addiction services against access to those services.
As Muller watched, his older daughter Angie took the stage.
“I haven’t had a drink or a drug in three and a half years,” she said. And the crowd cheered.
Look around you, said State Rep. Tawna Sanchez, D-Portland, who has been clean and sober for four decades. “Sometimes it feels like you’re the only one, but you’re not.”
Of foster kids in Oregon, half have parents struggling with addiction. For kids in the state’s youth corrections system, that figure jumps to 75 percent. And one-in-three people experiencing homelessness say addiction played a role in losing stable housing.
“I’ve been pissed off for years that we haven’t done more,” Sanchez told the crowd, “And I demand a comprehensive plan to address it.”
Sanchez was joined by Multnomah County Commissioners Loretta Smith and Jessica Vega Pederson, who called for a larger investment in detox programs, in-patient treatment and recovery housing, and services tailored to the needs of communities of color.
“We need more help here in Multnomah County,” said Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson. “We need more funding for treatment and recovery support services; we need more culturally appropriate services; and we desperately need more supportive housing.”
The county invests nearly $20 million a year in addiction services and also supports community-based recovery organizations such as the Alano Club of Portland, the 4th Dimension Recovery Center and Miracles Club, and programs such as Volunteers For America’s Family Recovery Support, which offers support and community services for parents in recovery.
The county has also convened public safety partners to reexamine how they react to people who buy or sell drugs as a way to fuel their own addiction, through its Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion initiative, or LEAD. The pilot program diverts people from arrest and potential criminal convictions to treatment.
“We were told that slogans like ‘Just Say No’ would save lives,” Vega Pederson said. “But we don’t need slogans. We need solutions. We need to put an end to the failed policies of the past and begin treating addiction as a disease that requires a doctor, not a prison bed.”
President Ronald Reagan launched the War on Drugs in 1982 and quickly narrowed its focus to crack-cocaine, the crystal form of the drug, and the only drug that African Americans use at a higher rate than white Americans, according to federal drug abuse reports. (Whites use the powder form of cocaine at a higher rate.)
The 1980s also saw the introduction of mandatory minimum sentences -- and even the death penalty -- for some drug cases. President George H.W. Bush took over Reagan's war, declaring crack the nation’s most serious problem, according to a historical account in The New Jim Crow.
Methamphetamines, a drug once used on battlefields and prescribed by doctors to treat the common cold, exploded onto the scene in the 1990s, just as Multnomah County launched the nation’s second-ever drug court to divert people from jail to drug treatment. By 1992, a quarter of inmates in the County’s jails tested positive for the drug. Over the next decade, Oregon logged the nation’s highest rate of drug treatment for meth addiction. A 2017 report of the Oregon-Idaho High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) Executive Board ranked meth the state’s “greatest drug threat.”
That’s the drug that trapped John Holdt, 37, who served two stints in prison for selling methamphetamines. The last time he faced criminal charges, he said, prosecutors gave him one last chance to change. By then, he had tried to get clean once before, managing to string a bit of time together with help from Volunteers for America.
“I’d had a taste of it. I knew there was a different way of doing things,” said Holt, who celebrated one year of sobriety this summer. “They show you what to do with the rest of your life. For a lot of us, it might be all we know.”
But today another class of drug has surged, both in popularity and deadliness. Sale of the prescription painkiller OxyContin increased nearly 23-fold in the first four years after it came on the market in 1996, making it the nation’s most commonly prescribed opioid. Sales paralleled a rise in drug treatment admissions and overdose deaths, according to data from the National Vital Statistics System, Drug Enforcement Agency and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Oregon was soon registering the highest rate of non-medical use of prescription painkillers in the country. By 2015, ambulance services were responding to two opioid overdoses a day in Multnomah County.
John Hacker was in his early 20s when he fell asleep behind the wheel of his Chevy pickup on his way to work. He crashed into a guardrail and the car exploded in flames. He was rushed to the hospital with third-degree burns. His recovery was slow and painful. That earned him a steady supply of prescription painkillers. But when doctors began to curtail his refills, he sought out heroin, a cheaper and easier-to-find alternative. That was in 2003. He would spiral downward and land in jail, where, in January 2007, he began his road to recovery.
Hacker, 33, recently graduated from Portland State University with a bachelor’s degree in public health. He wants to use his degree to advocate for change, and that includes helping Oregon rethink how it manages the wreckage created by people addicted to alcohol and drugs.
It’s wrong, he said, “how addition is treated with the criminal justice system and visits to the emergency room.”
“If someone is homeless and strung out on heroin, one of the hardest things you can do is sleep outside of Hooper for two to six days to get in,” he said. “Then you’re released, but Hooper is just a detox. You’re releasing people into the same atmosphere six days after detoxing. The wait is weeks or months to get into in-patient treatment.”